The eastern half of the park is typical of the lower Colorado Desert, dominated by the abundant and fragrant creosote bush, a drought-resistant survivor that releases secretions into the surrounding soil to inhibit competing seedlings. Adding interest to the arid land are small stands of spidery, tenacious ocotillo, a split personality that drops its leaves in times of drought, making it appear dry and spindly. When the rains come, the ocotillo can sprout bushy leaves in a few days, and its flaming blooms atop leafy green branches bear little resemblance to its dormant alter ego.
Most people associate desert plants with cacti, which are indeed here in abundance. One of the more unusual members of the cactus family is the Bigelow cholla cactus ("teddy bear" or "jumping" cactus). Cholla's fine spines appear soft and fluffy from afar, but the folks who have accidentally gotten a clump stuck to their skin or clothing know the truth about these deceptively barbed spines. Most of the park's points of interest lie in the higher, slightly cooler and wetter Mojave Desert, the special habitat of the burly Joshua tree, which displays huge white flowers following a good rainy season. Early pioneers tried to chop down the trees for firewood, only to discover that they were actually full of water and fireproof. Five fan palm oases (in both climate zones) flourish in areas where water is forced to the surface along fault lines.
Wildflower lovers, take note: The Joshua Tree area has traditionally been an excellent place to view nature's springtime bonanza, and the lower elevations of the park are hot spots. In addition to the flowering plants discussed above, the desert is home to sand verbena, desert dandelion, evening primrose, and dozens more varieties, some so tiny that you must crouch down to make out their brightly colored petals -- veteran viewers call these "belly flowers."
One of the more wonderful aspects of the Joshua Tree desert is the way this seemingly harsh and barren landscape slowly reveals itself to be richly inhabited. From the black-tailed jackrabbits abundant at the Oasis of Mara and throughout the park to bobcats and the occasional cougar prowling around less-traveled areas, the desert teems with life.
Some other frequently spotted residents: the roadrunner, a member of the cuckoo family with long, spindly legs and that telltale gait; the coyote, a fearless scavenger that'll openly trot along the road in search of food (beware: They'll eat tennis shoes or picnic trash as eagerly as they eat rabbits, but it is illegal to feed them anything); and bighorn sheep, most often seen atop the rocky hills they ascend with sharp cloven hooves. Perhaps the most unusual animal is the desert tortoise, a slow-moving burrow dweller not often seen by casual visitors. The tortoises, which can live more than 50 years, are a protected threatened species, and you're prohibited from touching or interfering with them in any way. A poignant exception to this is if you encounter a tortoise on the road in danger of being hit -- you're permitted to pick it up gently with two hands and carry it off the road, placing it facing in the same direction in which it was traveling.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.